Around 1978 I was vacationing with my parents and sister in a rented condominium on Hilton Head Island. We’d been to Hilton Head several times before on our annual week-long summer vacation, making the two-day drive from Little Rock across the length of Tennessee and then through South Carolina to the ocean. Up to then, we’d always stayed in hotels at Hilton Head, eating breakfast of sweet rolls and orange juice and lunch of sandwiches and chips, spending the days on the beach or playing tennis or putt-putt, then getting squeaky clean and putting on fresh clothes to go out to dinner at a real restaurant. It’s been years since I was on the island, and I carry only a memory of much greenness, unmarred by billboards, open, flat roads, and miles of white sandy beach.
Of this trip, staying in the condo complex rather than a hotel, our last trip there as a family because I was growing up and my parents were growing apart, I remember two things: the first was meeting a much older man of 29 from New York (!) and having a brief, chaste romance enhanced by a walk on the beach under a full moon; the second was stealing a poem.
I didn’t steal it in the sense of plagiarizing it—I stole the physical poem, and I still have it, some 30 years later.
The owners of the condo had left old issues of The New Yorker in a neat stack on the coffee table. Then, and, I admit, even a bit now, The New Yorker represented to me all things urban, sophisticated, literary, educated—a world of city intellectuals far removed from my life in Arkansas. In one of those old issues I found a poem titled “Snow,” by Philip Levine. I didn’t know who he was, but I fell immediately in love with the poem. I was trying to learn to write poems myself, and this poem did so many things I didn’t know a poem could do: in a conversational voice, Levine created a scene that seemed real to me, a scene he knew from his own life, and filled it with memorable images, images of dirt and grime and confusion and anger but also of snow so beautiful that you recognize its beauty “Seen from inside a window, / even a filthy one like those / at Automotive Supply Company.” The poem moves from the utterly ordinary to the mythic: “spring grass is what the earth sang / in answer to the new sun, to / melting snow, and the dark rain / of spring nights” and concludes with a personification of snow as being like, or perhaps, by a kind of sleight of poetic hand, being “the tears of all / the lost souls” that “rose to heaven / and were finally heard and blessed / with substance and the power of flight” who “lay their / great pale cheek against the burning / cheek of earth.”
Some might find the ending a little sentimental, but it moved me, and moves me still, because of the compassion established in the beginning of the poem and the sheer heart of the speaker whose emotions are somehow involved in this description of snow in Detroit, Michigan, and yet not overtly described or revealed.
I loved this poem so much that—even though I revered printed matter to the point of near idol worship--I secretly, and carefully, tore it free from its stapled binding and kept it so that I could look at it occasionally for the kind of comfort it provides.
What good fortune that Philip Levine is our new Poet Laureate, and that his work will be newly before us.
More on him, his work, and recordings of his poems can be found at poets.org.
Here’s the full text of the poem:
Today the snow is drifting
on Belle Isle, and the ducks
are searching for some opening
to the filthy waters of their river.
On Grand River Avenue, which is not
in Venice but in Detroit, Michigan,
the traffic has slowed to a standstill
and yet a sober man has hit a parked car
and swears to the police he was
not guilty. The bright squads of children
on their way to school howl
at the foolishness of the world
they will try not to inherit.
Seen from inside a window,
even a filthy one like those
at Automotive Supply Company, the snow,
which has been falling for hours,
is more beautiful than even the spring
grass which once unfurled here
before the invention of steel and fire,
for spring grass is what the earth sang
in answer to the new sun, to
melting snow, and the dark rain
of spring nights. But snow is nothing.
It has no melody or form, it
is as though the tears of all
the lost souls rose to heaven
and were finally heard and blessed
with substance and the power of flight
and given their choice chose then
to return to earth, to lay their
great pale cheek against the burning
cheek of earth and say, “There, there, child.”
by Philip Levine
- Jennifer Horne
- I’m a writer, editor, and teacher, and I enjoy connecting with readers and other writers. I grew up in Arkansas and am a long-time resident of Alabama, and in November 2017 I was commissioned Alabama Poet Laureate, for a four-year term. My latest book is a poetry chapbook, "Borrowed Light," and my current writing project is a biography of the writer Sara Mayfield. I call this blog "A Map of the World" because I think that, as writers, we each map our own lives, imaginations, and world. Welcome to my particular map!